Community feature: Milton Ruffin shares cultural influences ahead of local fest

Erica Thompson

Milton Ruffin's gospel music roots can be traced to Mount Moriah Fire Baptized Holiness church in Youngstown, Ohio. His grandmother purchased a brand-new piano for her modest, storefront operation. But Sunday after Sunday, the 15-year-old Ruffin watched as the instrument sat untouched.

“I asked her, would she be OK if I sat there and just tried to learn how to play while the service was going on,” Ruffin said in an early-July interview in his home studio. “She said, ‘Sure.' … So it was like the piano was there waiting for me to learn how to play.”

It wasn't Ruffin's primary instrument. Two years earlier, he'd started playing guitar, though his large fingers made it difficult. “My passion for playing was driving me so much that I was trying to work through the pain,” he said. A friend suggested he switch to bass. “My hands just locked right into it. And that was the beginning of the rest of my life.”

Nearly 40 years later, Ruffin is an accomplished bassist, pianist and educator. He spends a lot of his time at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center, where he is the principal and director. But you can catch him doing a gospel set at the Cultural Wall Music Festival this Saturday and Sunday, July 14 and 15, an appropriate platform given his background

“My journey has been rooted in cultural influences,” he said.

Beyond gospel, Ruffin became well-versed in funk when he and his brother toured as the Ruffin Brothers. The teenagers even performed for their cousin, the legendary David Ruffin, of the Temptations. David traveled to Youngstown in his Winnebago to meet them for the first time.

“He actually took us to Motown and we recorded in [the famous] Studio A,” Ruffin recalled. “I still have the tapes.”

David invited them to go on the road with him, but Ruffin didn't want to quit high school.

“Now that I think about it, I'm just like, ‘Man, that would've been really cool,'” Ruffin said.

But the Ruffin Brothers went on to open for myriad superstars in Youngstown, including Rick James and Parliament Funkadelic.

“I remember the first time we opened for Cameo,” Ruffin said. “We had gotten so popular … people were rushing the stage and screaming.”

And the first time Ruffin met George Clinton, the bandleader let him try on his tall, silver boots. “I will never forget that,” Ruffin said.

Through dressing rooms and sound checks, the Ruffin Brothers had a window into some of the stars' wild lifestyles, but Ruffin managed to avoid trouble. “It was almost like I was protected from all that,” he said. “Had I gotten sidetracked with some of the vices that come along with being on the road, it might've changed where I was destined to go.”

The next stop on Ruffin's path was college, thanks to his grandmother, a longtime maid for a doctor at Youngstown State University. “He thought so highly of her, he arranged it where my brother and I could [attend] the School of Music as a favor to her.”

Without any formal training, the brothers struggled through their classes. Ruffin persevered, eventually transferring to Ohio State and earning his bachelor's degree after eight years.

“I think it took him a minute just to get really serious about getting his work done,” said Dr. Ted McDaniel, the former director of Jazz Studies at OSU. “But he was very talented. … I enjoyed having him in class. I enjoyed having him in my groups. I enjoyed collaborating with him on certain projects, and I just find him a fun-loving person [and] a wonderful human being.”

Ruffin went on to earn a PhD in music education. He started working at Fort Hayes about 15 years ago. The school has since been awarded a Grammy Enterprise Award, and partnered with Boston's Berklee College of Music to provide resources to students. Several Fort Hayes graduates have gone on to study at Berklee on scholarship.

“It was really an alignment of purpose and passion,” Ruffin said of his job. “Fort Hayes was a school full of kids like me. … I could see the kid that struggled with learning music.”

Elsewhere in Columbus, Ruffin's accolades are many. In addition to releasing his solo album, Bassic Principal, and producing for others, he composed the anthem for the 200Columbus Bicentennial Celebration.

He follows in a long line of historic local musicians, many of whom are visible on the Long Street Cultural Wall. “Columbus has a really rich history,” he said. “It's just a really phenomenal place for artists to have access to these legendary people who are generous.”

“I'm the same way,” he added. “That's why I built this studio in my home, so if people want to come by and … work on music, it's available.”

Cultural Wall Music Festival

Saturday and Sunday, July 14 and 15

71 Jefferson Ave., Downtown